Switching from native to web apps: an experiment

Warning This article was written over six months ago, and may contain outdated information.

I recently had call to do a factory reset on my phone, and as I began the process of reinstalling all my apps again decided to try an experiment instead: to see if mobile web apps (or, sites) were up to the job of replacing native apps. With the forthcoming release of Firefox OS this is something I’ve been very curious about, but within days I was back to using native again. I’ll explain why, but lay out some of the more positive findings before I do. Note that I was using Chrome on Android for my experiment, but I think the findings should hold true for most browser and OS combos.

The positives

Some mobile apps are extremely well made and I would have no difficulty at all in switching to them today. Of special note are Twitter and Facebook, which have — as far as I can tell — full feature parity (in all the features I use, anyway) with their native siblings. Twitter in particular have taken a lot of time and effort to provide a first-class experience on the mobile web.

The Guardian’s mobile site is also beautifully designed — better even than the native app, in my opinion — and BBC News and Sport are also of the highest quality. Google’s mobile apps — Gmail, Calendar, Reader, and Maps — are not quite as slick as the native versions, but are undoubtedly very functional and usable.

The negatives

A few of the apps I use frequently were just not up to scratch on mobile. I have to single out Foursquare who, somewhat surprisingly for such a mobile-focused service, have a shockingly poor mobile web offering, not optimised for modern phones at all. The Google+ app was pretty poor while I was testing, although a new version has just been released which seems much better. Instagram’s mobile site is okay, but is purely for consumption — there’s no way to add new photos. But these apps were nice to haves rather than essential, so I could have done without them if I’d switched to an all-web OS.

The problem came with the lack of system settings. For example, unlike Niels Matthijs I like to have notifications for certain content, and web apps on Android don’t have access to notifications.

More seriously, there is no integration between apps at all; unlike with Android’s Intents, I can’t begin a task in one app then send it to another; each mobile web app is an island unto itself, so I can’t tweet a photo from my gallery, or save a link to Pocket or Evernote.

The biggest annoyance, however, was that running an instance of an app wouldn’t make it visible in other tabs; for example, if I had Twitter in tab A then followed a link to a Tweet in tab B, a new instance of Twitter would open in tab C. My tabs soon filled up with multiple instances of the same app.

The conclusion

It’s likely that if I were coming at a web-based OS afresh I would develop new habits and ways of working to achieve my behavioural goals. However, as a convert from a system that works for me, with inter-app operation and notifications, I found myself extremely limited and became frustrated quite quickly. This means that I don’t feel I can switch to web apps permanently right now, and that’s a shame because in some cases I didn’t miss native apps at all.

All the problems I mentioned above are problems that Firefox OS will have to solve, and I believe that they have the APIs to do it; however, if an outreach process to get big apps to use Web Activities and Notifications isn’t underway already, it should be started very soon.

Update: It occurred to me after writing this that my mental model of what I expect from apps would probably be very different if I were an iOS user, where each app is essentially an island anyway, and notifications are generally much fewer or non-existent. However, the issue with multiple instances of an app being opened in new tabs is annoying regardless of your current choice of platform.

4 comments on
“Switching from native to web apps: an experiment”

  1. The thing is that I consider most apps “islands” as you call them. I use Facebook for checking updates. I never go from Facebook to a different app to continue one action. I go to Facebook and when I’m finished checking updates I’m off to do something else.

    I prefer native for production too, but I believe there are way to many consumption apps out there, apps that offer little to no extra benefits compared to their web counterpart (like Twitter and Facebook). Like you mentioned though, people have different needs and workflows, so what works for one guy may not work for the next.

    PS: I’m having troubles with G+ since it updated to the new version. Somehow the content doesn’t resize to my screen anymore. Google really doesn’t like MS lately :)

  2. One thing I probably should have mentioned — and will probably update to include — is that your experience may be quite different if you’re an iOS user, used to each app being independent; I tend to have a joined-up workflow which carries on between apps quite often. However, the problem with multiple versions of the same app opening in different tabs is true regardless of platform.

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